Most foreigners will need a visa to enter China. Visas are categorised by a letter according to applicant characteristics – this can seem confusing at first, but once familiar with the appropriate titles, visa application processes will become clearer.
However, visa regulations can change suddenly and without warning. There is often a degree of inconsistency between online resources, consulates and the local Public Safety Bureaus (PSB), where expats will have to register within 24 hours of arriving.
Expats are advised to be as thorough as possible with their documentation and, where a minimum requirement is stated, to go over and above that. For instance, it's a good idea to ensure that passports are valid for more than the six-month minimum required by Chinese authorities, especially for longer stays.
It should be noted that expats applying for a Chinese visa from somewhere other than their country of origin may have to submit additional documents such as work or residence permits. Fees vary depending on the applicant’s country of origin and where they are applying for their visa.
Applying for a visa
We recommend starting the visa process at least one month in advance, but no earlier than three months before the intended date of travel.
To apply for a visa, applicants are typically required to visit an official Visa Application Centre or embassy in person. This is to obtain biometric fingerprint scans, which may be checked and collected again after arrival in China when registering with the PSB. Following this visit and the submission of necessary documents, applicants can track their visa application online.
Tourist visas for China (L visa)
Tourist visas, categorised as L visas, are issued for tourist visits to China. These come in single-, double- and multiple-entry variants. Single-entry visas are valid for three months from the date of issue, while double- and multiple-entry visas are valid for six or 12 months for stays of no longer than 30 days at a time.
The Chinese government requires proof of travel itinerary or an invitation letter, as well as proof of funds, a visa application fee and evidence of a return or onward ticket.
Visit visas for China (F visa)
Under the revised visa system, F visas are issued to applicants who intend to visit China for non-commercial purposes such as conferences, cultural exchanges and study tours. Single-entry F visas are usually valid for 30 days, while longer multiple-entry visas can also be applied for.
Student visas for China (X visa)
There are two types of student visas for China. The X1 visa is for applicants who intend to study in China for more than 180 days, while X2 visas are for those intending to study for less than 180 days.
In addition to standard visa requirements, applicants for the longer X1 visa need the original and a photocopy of the admission letter submitted by the Chinese institution they will be studying at, as well as an original and photocopy of the Visa Application for Study in China form, which can be obtained from their nearest consulate.
Business visas for China (M visa)
The M visa, or commercial trade activities visa, is issued to applicants going to China for commercial and trade activities. In addition to the standard documentation, applicants will also need a letter of invitation from their host company in China or documents such as an official trade fair invitation.
M visas are generally limited to stays of up to 30 days, but extensions can be applied for.
Dependant visas for China (Q and S visas)
Relatives of Chinese citizens or foreigners with permanent residence in China can apply for a Q visa. Q1 visas are for stays over 180 days; Q2 visas are for stays 180 days or less.
Relatives and dependants of foreigners working in China can apply for S visas if their reason for travel is visiting or for personal matters. S1 visas are valid for over 180 days, while S2 visas are valid up to 180 days.
Five and 10-year multiple-entry visas for China
Under certain circumstances, expats can apply for visas valid five or 10 years. This includes holders of business, tourist, short term family visit or personal affairs visas (M, L, Q and S visas, respectively). Expats who have previously held multiple-entry visas can typically explore their options for a five-year visa, and once granted this, they may be able to apply for a 10-year visa.
Work visas for China (Z visa)
The Z visa is typically issued to expats taking up employment in China for more than six months, though shorter-term entry permits are also available.
Note that expats working in the journalism field should apply for a separate J visa, and expats deemed to be highly skilled and urgently needed will need to obtain an R visa.
Chinese authorities require extensive documentation for Z visa applications, usually including at least one of the following:
Confirmation letter of invitation issued by the Chinese company
Notification letter of foreigner's work permit
Letter of invitation to foreigners engaged in offshore petroleum operations
A registration certificate issued by the relevant regional department of industry and commerce
Expats should note the difference between a work visa and a work permit for China. Although they are closely related, the former allows the applicant to enter the country for work, while the latter enables them to stay and work in the country.
*Visa regulations are subject to change at short notice and expats should contact their nearest embassy or consulate for the latest information.
►Work Permits for China is essential for expats wanting to work in the People's Republic
►Working in China gives important insight into the country's working culture
►Visit the Visa Application Center for more on visa processes
"There were no problems getting a working visa because my employers sorted it all out." Most host employers in China provide extensive support with visa processes. Read more about expat life in China in our interview with Paul.
"...things change on that front all the time, so I try not to take it for granted." Kara gives advice on getting visas in this expat interview.
Are you an expat living in China?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to China. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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